Leviticus 16:9-10 invokes a word that is only found in this small section of the bible, never to be used again. The word is `aza'zel. Some of you may recognize the word as the name of a demon that is quite fashionable in pop culture throughout the world. For many centuries, Azazel has been depicted in various stories and works of art, but ironically, he has taken on a spirit of his own. I say this because the truth is, we don’t know really what the word meant to the Hebrews!
There’s a lot of ground to cover with this single word, so let’s get some of the known stuff out of the way first. Just as the idea of casting lots predates the Israelites, so too does the idea of imbuing the sins of others onto an animal and sending it into the wilderness. Similar practices were popular with the ancient Syrians and Greeks which predate the Israelites by around 1,000 years. This makes sense because the Israelites weren’t born in a cultural vacuum, and they no doubt continued the same forms of magic and ritual of the their ancestors.
The earliest English translations of the bible don’t use the term “scapegoat.” Wycliffe’s Bible, circa 1390, says the “goat that shall be sent out,” but it wasn’t until Tyndale’s Bible, circa 1530, that we see the phrase “scapegoat” which is short for “escape goat.” Of course, the church wanted to control people with the bible, so possessing a non-Latin bible (that the layperson could read) was a crime punishable by death, thus the phrase probably didn’t see much use until 1611 when the church finally authorized an English translation, and the KJV popularized the term. Hebrew scholars claimed that the word “azazel” was from the root words `ez, meaning “she-goat,” and 'azal, meaning “to send away.” From this, everything seems to make sense.
Well, if it makes sense, then why is it that a lot of bibles leave the word untranslated? Well, it turns out that the etymology of the word is contested. For example, a second etymology I found says the word comes from the roots `azaz, meaning “to be strong,” and 'el, meaning “god,” which could mean something along the lines of, “the strength of god.” This is considerably different to, “goat that’s sent away.”
All that confusion is well and good, but why is Azazel thought to be a demon? If you only read the bible, this is a mystery, because there is nothing that connects the word “azazel” to “demon.” There aren’t even any contemporary texts which make this connection, but there is one that’s pretty close. The apocryphal Book of Enoch depicts Azazel as one of the fallen angels that existed on the Earth before the flood and gave birth to the Nephilim (the odd story from Genesis). Leviticus was written about 200 years before Book of Enoch, which makes the connection seem tacked-on. However, Genesis predates Leviticus by about 200 years, so the idea of these fallen angels certainly existed before Leviticus. So, while “azazel” is probably not directly related to the fallen angel in Enoch, the idea of fallen angels is still an important part of the Hebrew’s culture.
The background comes from the sigil of Azazel created long after the demonic origin of the character. For a fun epilepsy-inducing version of it, click here.